Giving Students a Compass

High school, perhaps more than any other stage of life, may be the most confusing and overwhelming. It is a no-man’s land between childhood and adulthood. Students are eager for independence and adult experiences but not yet emotionally ready to handle the burden of the accompanying responsibility. The pressure to start taking life seriously is high. Most do not feel prepared to face the uncertainly ahead and few have a very clear idea about what they want to do with their lives. What they need is a compass.

Schools seek to prepare students with a general and functional education. Laying firm foundations in basic math and verbal competence are crucial life skills. A broad fundamental knowledge of science, history, literature, philosophy and civics are essential for building the critical thinking skills that enable students to distinguish fact from fiction, appreciate diverse perspectives, and envision solutions to complex problems. Exposure to the Arts connects them with their own humanity.  And advanced placement, technical, or trade subjects help prepare them for their first steps beyond high school.

Of all the subjects taught in school, however, the study of self may be the most critical for preparing students to make strategic decisions about whether those first steps will move them in a direction that’s right for them. Such a study would encourage and challenge students to explore questions like:

·         What’s really important to me?

·         What do I want out of life?

·         How do I want to contribute?

·         What do I do well?

·         How do those abilities and aptitudes have value?

·         And, how can I consciously leverage those abilities to create the future I want?

Unfortunately, few schools do much to encourage and support such self-inquiry. It is a tragically missed opportunity to set students up for success. While most students easily identify what interests them and in which subjects they most excel. Few understand the innate talents that drive those interests and aptitudes.

In their book, First, Break All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman describe “talent” as “nothing more than recurring patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that can be productively applied.” More than being good in math or an excellent competitive athlete, talent is the underlying love of precision and need for accuracy or the compulsion to make everything a comparison against which to measure performance. Talent is the intersection between the unique ways in which we use our minds and the savvy to apply those unique patterns and aptitudes strategically in the right context.

Because our patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are so automatic to us, we often fail to recognize their value. This is particularly true of adolescents struggling to find their own identity. Parents, teachers, and coaches can help students recognize their innate abilities by highlighting them in their every day efforts. “Hey Son, I have to organize some content into a marketing brochure for work and I need your help figuring out the design. You’ve always been good at spatial planning and have a excellent eye for visuals. Remember when you were 8 and…And then that time in middle school when…” Or, “Caitlyn, I want to thank you for your contribution to class discussion yesterday when we were debating opposite perspectives of X. You were able to see the common agenda in the opposing sides that no one else saw. It was like the argument you presented in your last essay assignment when you…”

When students recognize their unique patterns of thoughts, feeling, and behaviors and appreciate how those patterns have value, it provides a clearly defined compass around which to guide their decision-making and allows them to act from a place of confidence and strength.  This bolsters self-esteem in who they are and calms insecurities about who they are not.  It allows space to appreciate--rather than envy or resent--the talents of others, which opens up greater opportunities for collaboration.  Anchored by an awareness of how they learn best, students can consciously develop more effective strategies for mastering content and concepts. When facing challenges or choosing a major or career path, this compass empowers them to monopolize on what they do best.

Encouraging self-inquiry also helps students identify what truly matters to them. It helps them distinguish their own goals and expectations from those of parents, peers, and society in general. By challenging them to define what they want from life, how they want to contribute, and relating that to what is uniquely theirs to offer, we empower them with the clarity and confidence to formulate their own goals. When they can formulate goals that are authentically theirs, they are personally invested making their commitment stronger and more enduring.

Self-inquiry and the resulting self-awareness isn’t an absolute solution to the question, “What do I want to do with my life?” It’s a tool. It’s a powerful and necessary compass by which to navigate the uncertainly that accompanies their first steps into their own futures and every step after that.


Are You Sure You Know Where You’re Going?

I recently spoke with a young woman struggling to figure out what she wanted to do after relinquishing a path to become a doctor. She had excelled academically, which earned her a full scholarship to college. There, immersed in a culture that emphasized excellence, she shouldered the expectation that highly intelligent people should pursue highly academic and prestigious careers. Today, the focus is on STEMs. For many, being a doctor is considered the apex of a biology- and health-centered STEMs career. This was the goal she felt her academic mentors, and society in general, expected of her.

By the end of her undergraduate program, however, she realized that, for her, scientific work was deeply unsatisfying. The problem now was that her identity and self-worth were tied together with this notion of becoming a doctor. If she took that away, who was she?


American author and radio speaker, Earl Nightingale said:

“People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going.” 


I’m not sure it’s that simple. In a very concrete and practical sense, a goal is the aim to accomplish a desired result. Whether the goal is self-established or imposed by an employer, team or teacher, it enables the creation of a plan and strategy to meet and achieve a target. Goals may be small, short-term objectives or grand, long-terms ambitions. Either way, they are a dangled carrot that leads you where you are going. The completion of such goals is a common metric of success.

For me, this quote means different things depending on the scale. On the small scale, I quite agree. We have a clearly defined project to complete. We break the work down into sequential chunks and set goals to complete each chunk, creating a logical path towards our objective of succeeding with the project. 

On a grander scale, If you have not clearly defined your own vision of success, can you succeed? It’s a question of self-awareness and self-actualization. Where do you want to go?

It’s obvious to say ‘we know where we’re going because we have goals’. Goals provide us with a target that moves us towards a vision. But, whose vision? How deeply have our parents, or peers, or popular opinion influenced our own expectations and definition of success?

Knowing where you are going isn’t simply about setting goals and pursuing them to completion. It is about setting goals that align with what is meaningful for you. The world is full of people who have, by popular definition, achieved success yet are unfulfilled, unhappy, and lost. Perhaps they have hung their hat on the wrong metric for success?

What matters to you? How do you want to contribute? Where do you want to go? Goals will take us where they lead. But until we can authentically answer these questions for ourselves, that may not be where we truly want to go.

Why “Do What You Love” Only Paints a Partial Picture of the Perfect Job

My mother was a sculptor. Her medium of choice was welded steel. While she worked in her basement studio next to our playroom, my brother and I would lay on the playroom rug and watch through the studio door the fireworks display produced from her oxyacetylene torch as she welded mundane pieces of scrap metal into a new expression for her creativity. Sculpting was her passion—a passion she was forced to give up when my parents separated and she had to find more conventional, stable work that would support the three of us.

As a teenager, when I was thinking about what I would like to pursue as a career, I witnessed daily the high cost to my mother of this new conventional work she didn’t enjoy. Her work was confining for a creative mind.  It was dull, tedious, frustrating, and stressful. The stress affected her health, her mood, and her ability to enjoy her personal life. The stress came home with her and manifested itself in frustrated outbursts, constant fatigue, and depression.

Those experiences profoundly impacted how I chose my own career path. I wanted to do something I loved. And, while I was not motivated by money, I didn’t want to constantly worry about my financial security. My mother’s most morbid outburst still echoes in my head, “I’ll never be able to afford to retire! I’m going to die on the job!” 

In high school, I was a straight A student. Most things came easily to me. Like my mother, I loved art and had a creative mind constantly in search of an outlet. But, I was also particularly drawn to life sciences. I was fascinated with the intricate pathways and connection in living systems. I loved to learn. I loved ideas and possibilities, and I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. So I plotted a course in research. I completed two degrees and built a career as a cell biologist in the biotech industry. But, as it turns out, I didn’t love what I was doing. 

I thought I had been careful and analytical about my decisions. I chose to major in biochemistry, which I believed offered flexibility. From here, I could specialize, perhaps in genetics or molecular biology, or explore more generalized, broader fields. I researched colleges with strong biochemistry programs and chose a university in the middle of a biotech hub, where there would be plenty of job opportunities upon graduation. Science would feed my curiosity, love of learning, imagination, and desire to contribute value. Yet somehow, I wasn’t getting the kind of satisfaction from my work that I thought I would and didn’t understand why. I felt trapped. Now I had a highly specialized set of skills and training which, I believed, only qualified me to do exactly what I was doing. After 15 years, I felt like I was losing myself.

It was time for a change. A career coach encouraged me to take a talent and strengths assessment. The assessment included questions, forced choice items to reveal preferences, verbal puzzles, pattern recognition games, spatial planning tasks, and organizational reasoning, to name just a few. Its very format highlighted the many different ways in which people use their minds.  Of course, I know people are diverse. We don’t all think the same. But the assessment made conscious what had been unconscious. It created awareness, defined, and gave names to my specific patterns of behavior and the ways I use my mind.  Instantly, I appreciated at a whole new level that what comes naturally to me does not come naturally to everyone. And, that has value. This realization was empowering. It allowed me to let go of so many insecurities about what I am not and to fully embrace and leverage who I am.  

In hindsight, my lack of engagement in the doing of science was evident very early on. I love big ideas and discovering connections and interrelationships between pathways and processes. At times, I enjoyed the manual nature of certain tasks but the constant, tedious, repetitive nature of micro-focused lab work drained me. On a scale of generalist to specialist, I scored 53% to 47% on my assessment. So, I have a roughly equal capacity and preference for both. However, the nature of my day-to-day work only allowed me to draw on my specializing talent. There was little to no outlet for the generalist side of me.

Bench science offered even fewer applications for my creativity and expression. The source of my frustration and lack of engagement is now obvious. I have these strengths and innate talents that I naturally reached for, like a trusted tool or a dominant hand, but there was no outlet. It felt like an amputation.

When I chose a career path, I wanted to do what I love. Now I realize how important it is to also do what I naturally do well. I assumed they are one in the same. But they are not. A love of learning, of ideas and possibilities, and a fascination with connections are talents that underpinned my interest and aptitude in academic science. The “doing” of science, however, requires an entirely different set of aptitudes. Understanding what you do naturally well and why you love what you do requires a nuanced self-awareness. It requires introspection but is a powerful tool.

Armed with an awareness of my own talents and strengths, cognizant of when, where and how I leveraged those strengths every day, I decided to change direction. I chose a new path that I not only enjoyed but required me to do precisely what I do best. I had a new language with which to market myself and effectively describe to potential employers exactly how I could help them meet their challenges.

Within three years, I had landed the best job of my life, was certified in a new profession, and earned a promotion. Within four years, I was crafting my own dream job and pursuing my passion for empowering others to realize the very best of themselves.

What about you? If you love you what you do, are you doing what you do best? And, if you aren’t doing what you do best--what comes most naturally to you--do you still love what you do or is something missing? I’d love to hear your story.